Monday, April 4, 2011

History of the World, Part 1 Reconsidered

Borrowing from Mel Brooks’ irreverent satire, History of the World, Part I (1981), for the title of this post, I hereby offer a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Western world, as I see it. Like Mr. Brooks, I think the class divide is at the heart of mankind’s story, and my hunch is that Mr. Brooks also believes, as I fervently do, that the world moves at glacier speed toward good.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a small number of people in the world enjoyed power and wealth, often as a result of birthright, but attainable by bullying and/or conquering folks who did not put up much of a fight. These kings and conquerors did not think of themselves as tyrants, bullies, terrorists, or despots. They thought of themselves as godly. They had enough humility to believe that someone had put them at the top of the food chain, thereby stamping abstract ideas such as Divine Right and Manifest Destiny with the label: Truth.

As a consequence, the Western world’s population could be divided into two unequal halves, those with and those without. Those with power, wealth, and opportunity were very, very few in number. Those without voice, means, access or even shelter and sufficient food were legion. They endured, in part because the religious arm of mankind’s clout told them to be obedient and servile, to suffer the long indignities of filth, cold, hunger, and disease while laboring to please the “overlords” in order to gain access into an eternal life quite different.

Another reason the class divide endured is the little guy’s efforts to change his lot in life often ended horribly. William the Conqueror, he who united disparate Anglo-Saxons and Viking warriors under one government and one church, declared great swaths of land and all animal life thereon to belong to him. A poor, hungry man, desperate to feed his family, could only salivate at the sight of healthy deer on the King’s lands. If he were caught sating his hunger with one of the King’s deer, he would most likely be maimed in some way, his missing limb serving as a deterrent to other hungry poachers. The thief could also be slaughtered, and no one would come to his defense. In brief, the common man lacked organization, unity, and strength to fight an armed foe with greater resources. And again, the Church’s messages helped keep the peace. Men, including peasants who shoveled dung to servants who wiped the king’s arse, were taught that their places in the universe, no matter how miserable, were God’s will; thus, to try to change one’s circumstance was to sin and endure the pangs of Hell for all eternity.

One more reason for a delay in altering the class divide is the presumption that anyone born poor was, by God’s design, unequal, and this judgment extended to anyone different. Non-whites and non-Christians were but a small step above animals such as cattle or swine, but they were certainly not quite human in the same way that kings, queens, church officials, and those graced with the king’s favor were. Commoners could be worked to death, starved, and left to die without compromising the heavenly path the more powerful trod.

Certainly, those in various states of want did not need an education either. No one truly believed that the poor and women of all classes were capable of complex thought and analysis. Therefore, readers, writers, and calculators had the edge in disseminating information.

But ideas cannot be suppressed forever. They have a way of weaving their way into the hearts and minds of men. One of the earliest codified ideas is the Magna Carta, a document that many consider to be a precursor to the U. S. Constitution, both of which grant rights to men deemed free. It is this idea--freedom--that has spurred the unrest, revolution, protest, and challenges in the Middle East. It is an idea that invaded the Middle East through the Internet and social media. Freedom has also sent thousands to Milwaukee just as it incited labor, in earlier decades, to organize against repressive practices in the work place, practices that included long hours, locked doors, unhealthy conditions, unsafe machinery, and low wages, prohibiting the men or women on the production line from purchasing the very product they had a stake in making.

The history of the (Western) world suggests that oppression on the basis of birthright or wealth cannot endure. People overturn tyrants, bullies, terrorists, and despots because history shows us that men and women yearn to be free. History also informs us that education fosters revolution, both the bloodless and bloody types.

Education empowers the poor, disenfranchised, and weak, and therefore, must never be reserved for a privileged few. Education must be absolutely equal for all classes for it is a path to enlightenment regarding all those complicated, sticky, controversial, divisive issues of the day, and its best delivery system is open, frank discussion. It is the way to make people healthy and wise, drip and drop by drop. It must not be forsaken, underestimated, or gutted, and it must be entrusted into the knowing hands of those who care about children and the future, not ideologies and class for we are in real danger of returning to the old, old ways when all wealth and power were in the hands of a very few while the majority of the population fails to thrive.

We must not withdraw the freedom to shape our futures by withdrawing the opportunity to bargain collectively. We must not retreat from the evolutionary progress already made. We must, each of us, summon the courage to make a stand for equality and education. If we do, we will insure our own and our brothers’ freedom.